By Ahmad Adil
Over a dozen people have been lynched to death by angry mobs across India in the last two months over child abduction rumors circulated via smartphone messaging apps.
On Sunday, a mob killed five people in the western state of Maharashtra, famous for its glitzy capital Mumbai, over suspicions that they belonged to a child trafficking gang in the area.
"The victims had arrived in search of a livelihood. Those who attacked the victims thought they belonged to some kidnapping gang," said M Ramkumar, superintendent of police of Dhule district, where the incident occurred.
"A message had gone viral earlier that a kidnapping group was active in the area," he added.
The police have so far arrested 23 people in the case and investigations are ongoing.
The messages are often circulated on WhatsApp, notifying that child traffickers have entered a city and are abducting children.
The authorities have been unable to trace the source of these messages, however, they have launched an awareness drive in different states with a focus on remote areas.
In northeastern Tripura state, a 33-year-old announcer hired by the government to dispel rumors of child-lifters was lynched by a mob in late June.
“It is real challenge for us. We are educating people and then we are controlling law and order situations in incidents such as these, which is a big challenge for us,” said Ramkumar.
He added that they have started several initiatives like counter-messages on WhatsApp groups, and awareness campaigns on television and newspapers.
WhatsApp is a popular platform in India with an over 200-million user base in the country.
On Monday, police in the Indian state of Rajasthan posted a message on its social media account, saying: “Our job as citizens requires more than just being informed. We must also be vigilant about verifying information before sharing.”
Social media experts say since WhatsApp is encrypted it is impossible for a third person to check the origin of messages.
Mumbai-based Pankaj Jain, an official from fact-checking organization SMHoaxSlayer, told Anadolu Agency: “When it comes to the things people believe in, they are so prisoned in filter bubbles, they don't bother to check and believe the messages to be true. And yes, tribal areas, villages are still quite unaware of fake news and how their mind is being manipulated.”
Nikhil Pahwa, a tech expert and editor of website MediaNama, said: "Police needs to counter misinformation on a war footing."
Sankar Sen, a former Indian police officer and senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences, said: "The root cause of [the incidents] is that there is a feeling that nothing has happened to nab the culprits and ultimately people are taking law into their own hands."
Psychologists believe the illiterate masses are vulnerable to the menace.
"Illiterate,..., anxious, insecure kind of people are the ones who are vulnerable for this. They start believing in it and they don’t question things,” Dr. Adarsh Kohli, a professor of clinical psychology in North India, told Anadolu Agency. “The government should increase awareness for this group.”Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.